The Los Angeles Rams fell to the San Francisco 49ers in a 27-24 overtime nail biter after giving up a 17-point lead in the second half. They have now been defeated by the 49ers six times in a row and with the loss have allowed their kryptonite to enter the playoff picture.
Despite a frustrating loss on Sunday, the Rams have secured the NFC West championship with the Arizona Cardinals losing to the Seattle Seahawks—though it is obvious not a single player is thrilled about the crown. LA has secured the fourth seed in the playoffs and will take on the Cardinals on Monday night for wildcard weekend. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves though, here are the thing’s I learned in the Rams season finale.
Look in the mirror, Sean McVay
Sunday’s debacle will go down as one of the most shameful defeats in Sean McVay’s tenure with the Rams—not the loss to the Chicago Bears in the 2018 season, not the frustrating embarrassment that was Super Bowl LIII, or the other four head-scratching losses this season—it was Sunday’s game against San Francisco. McVay is now 45-1 when leading at the half. Although still an unprecedented stat, that “1” will not only haunt McVay for the rest of his time as a Rams head coach, the Rams faithful will be reminded of the defeat every time a network decides to bring up the graphic at the end of a half.
McVay’s playing calling was questionable at best. On their last drive of the second half the offense was presented with a third-and-1 situation with just 49 seconds left before halftime. Stafford was dropped back in the gun with an empty backfield with just a yard to go. On the snap the offensive line got completely blown up by the 49ers rush and within a second Stafford had no choice but to tuck the ball and take the sack. That then allowed Jimmy Garoppolo, who was fighting through an injured throwing hand, to drive the ball down the field enough to get a field goal before the half—three points that changed the dynamic of the game entirely.
I question the play call, much like Troy Aikman did during the broadcast, because any play called in that formation would take time to develop and made it incredibly predictable for the San Francisco pass rush. The run game for LA was not working, but gaining a yard on a handoff to Sony Michel was not impossible and of course there was the option of at least running play action to move the pocket away from pressure—yet it was neither and Stafford was simply left for dead in empty gun.
McVay must have gone into the locker room regretting the play call. After dominating the opposition the entire first half with the arm of Stafford, the Rams first drive of the third quarter featured two runs that went no where and an incomplete pass to Van Jefferson for a quick three-and-out. The 49ers offense then went down the field for the second time in two drives and scored their second touchdown of the half.
The Rams later took the lead off of an incredible acrobatic interception from Jalen Ramsey deep in their own territory. Cooper Kupp willed his team down the field with the help of Stafford and suddenly a path to victory was in sight—or so we thought. Kupp’s touchdown put the Rams up by seven with just 2:29 left to go. The defense played their next drive to perfection and forced a three-and-out. The offense got the ball back with just 1:50 to go in regulation; a single first down would end it.
After watching Stafford and Kupp dominate on the drive prior, McVay elected to run the ball three times in a row instead. As was the case the entire game the backfield for LA could not find any penetration. Michel gained five yards in three plays, the Rams only ran down the clock 23 seconds, and the 49ers may have used all their timeouts, but still had 1:27 left on the clock. The rest is history.
It may have been Stafford’s sudden interception problem late in the season on short yardage pickups, it could have been someone in a booth talking analytics, or trust in his defense, whatever the reason was for McVay’s conservative play calling at the end of the game was inexcusable and uncharacteristic. Gone are the days when McVay elected to run a QB sneak on a fourth-and-1 for the win against the Seattle Seahawks in 2018; or the coach who elected for a fake punt in the NFC Championship that same year against the New Orleans Saints.
Here is the coach that played to lose instead of playing to win.
Stafford should not be blamed for loss
Due to the calls made by McVay, and a sudden breakdown by the defense on the last drive, the Rams found themselves in overtime but with a chance to win the game. After getting a first down with the help of the officials, LA appeared to be going in the right direction. On first-and-10, Stafford launched a deep pass to Odell Beckham Jr. down the right sideline and as the ball floated for what seemed an exaggerated amount of time, it was suddenly apparent that it was underthrown and the game was over due to a Stafford interception.
Regardless of the sad fate that fell upon LA on Sunday, Stafford should not get the blame for the loss. His first half of play was near perfection as he chewed up the 49ers secondary despite playing with a one-dimensional offense. He found Tyler Higbee twice for touchdowns and constantly found ways to move down the field. With his defense playing some of their best football, the offense did not falter until the third-and-1 call by McVay that caused a sack and forced a punt.
In the second half the 49ers pass rush absolutely bullied the offensive line for the Rams; they finished the game with a total of 5 sacks. The run game was non-existent and without the ability to call play-action Stafford was simply a sitting duck. His interception in the third quarter was a 50/50 shot on a deep ball to the 6’3” rookie Ben Skowronek on third-and-16 that should be considered more of a punt if anything and was not a game-breaking turnover. Stafford also orchestrated what should have been the game-winning touchdown drive but was thwarted out of a win when the defense allowed the 49ers to tie up the score and send the game to overtime.
It may not have been the best game from Stafford, but he was not the reason that LA lost on Sunday.
Raheem Morris may be one and done with the Rams
Like Stafford, the defense also cannot be to blame for LA’s loss against the 49ers, but they did play an awfully big part in it. McVay’s conservative play calling handed the defense an opportunity to close out the game like they had done just a week prior against the Baltimore Ravens. Von Miller had also just completely dominated the edge on the drive previous so it was a pretty good bet that he would be able to do it again.
The first play of the 49ers last drive of the game went for 21 yards, two plays later Garoppolo found Deebo Samuel for a 43 yard gain, and three plays later found Juaun Jennings for the touchdown. In less than a minute of play Morris’ play calling on the defensive side of the ball allowed an injured QB to drive the length of the field and tie up the game with ease.
That was not even the worst part of it, however. The drive that may decide his future with the Rams after the season is over was the 49ers second opportunity on offense following halftime. On the series, head coach Kyle Shanahan called 10 running plays in a row and was not stifled once as the defensive line failed to get any traction. With the run working well against them, the entire defense was fooled on a trick play that had Samuel take a carry to the right side of the field before throwing a wobbly pass to a wide open Jennings for a 24 yard touchdown. Despite knowing exactly what the 49ers wanted to do against him after running the ball 40 times against LA in the previous matchup, Morris’ scheme was again broken by a physical running team in the second half of play.
Even if LA proves to be exceptional on the defensive-side of the ball throughout the playoffs, the recent availability of Vic Fangio could be too sweet for McVay to pass up.
Cooper Kupp to the rescue
As easy it is to look at the bad on Sunday, Cooper Kupp makes it just as easy to look at the good. Kupp finished just 18 yards short of Calvin Johnson’s single season receiving yard record and just four receptions short of Michael Thomas’ record and finished the season as the league leader in receptions, yards, and touchdowns—earning himself the triple crown for the first time since Steve Smith Sr. did it in 2005.
Which is impressive, but what is even more imposing was his effort on Sunday against the 49ers when it was needed most. On the Rams final scoring drive of the fourth quarter, Kupp took the first play 18 yards on a designed run. Two plays later Stafford found him for a 30 yard gain.
Michel then broke out for a 14 yard gain that was set up by an incredible run-block by Kupp to get the offense into scoring position.
sandwiched in between his 3rd down catch and TD in the 4th quarter. Here's Cooper Kupp being used like a de facto Fullback for the Rams.— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) January 10, 2022
Can also see Kupp's body control with how he navigates the bodies and gets upfield on the block. pic.twitter.com/0yqR4nPJRC
He then caught Stafford’s pass in the left corner of the end zone for the touchdown and the lead on third-and-goal.
Though he was not awarded with the win and his efforts will be lost in the loss, his effort to carry his team on his back on what could have been the final drive of the game should get him MVP consideration. He may not have broken the records, but his level of importance on the Rams offense goes to show just how talented the former third round pick is. His play will be vital in the playoffs—if not reliant.
What did you learn in Week 18? Let me know in the comments below!